July 19th, 2012


No True Pit Bull.

I haven't paid much attention to Pit Bull bans, as I'm not a dog owner, probably won't be until I retire and can give a dog the attention it needs, and I have no particular interest in that breed. I've pretty much bought the Cesar Milan assertion that it's just the latest in a long line of "scary" dog breeds. But then I ran across dogsbite.org, and their survey of dog-caused deaths reported in the press. Pit bulls outnumber other breeds by an order of magnitude, and in the case of Dobermans, by two orders of magnitude. It goes back to 1982, so by rights it should include a lot of cases from before Pit Bulls were the popular attack dogs. And yet it's still heavily weighted.

Even accounting for sampling error and press bias, that's interesting. What's even more interesting is the response of Pit Bull fans. To say the least, it's cult-like. Attacking the messenger, victim-blaming, demanding unreasonable standards of proof, and even advocating violence. (Actual quote, "Seriously, I hope someone kills her.")

But the most interesting to me is how they go about providing counter-evidence. The above links directed me to the National Canine Research Council, and their 2010 Investigation on dog-bite related fatalities is laugh-out-loud funny in its evasion. Of the identifiable breeds, there's a couple of huskies/sled dogs, a couple of Rotties, a couple of German Shepherds, a couple of miscellaneous. And the rest are all Pit Bulls. Their universal response:

The dog was reported to be a “pit bull.” NCRC was unable to obtain documentation from the owner or authorities that substantiate the breed. NCRC did obtain photographs of the dog. NCRC submitted the photographs to NCRC’s expert advisor who concluded the breed of the dog could not be reasonably determined from the photographs.

Ok, fair enough. But then you read those exact same words again.

NCRC submitted the photographs to NCRC’s expert advisor who concluded the breed of the dog could not be reasonably determined from the photographs.

And again.

Photographs were submitted to NCRC’s expert advisor who concluded that the breed(s) of the dogs could not be reasonably determined from the photographs.

And again and again. After a while, I started to feel a bit of a dog-like grin coming over my own face. In fact, NCRC's un-named expert advisor never once says "Yeah, that's a Pit Bull." In fact he or she never says, "No, that's a... something else." The only identification they do allow as "reasonable" is one Rottweiler. But when it comes to questions of Pit Bull identification, he or she is a complete know-nothing. "Pit Bull? What Pit Bull? I don't see a Pit Bull."

They don't even attempt to examine the implications if some of those reports are accurate. The assumption is that if the "expert" doesn't identify it as a Pit Bull, it couldn't possibly have been a Pit Bull. They have to, because even if you eliminate half of them it would still be an over-represented breed in dog attacks. Apparently there's some breed of dog out there that everyone calls a Pit Bull, all news outlets identify as a Pit Bull, and we don't know what it is, but it's definitely not a Pit Bull. And no, they can't tell you how to distinguish those evil impostors from the real, loveable thing.

And ironically, if you don't accept these out-of-hand dismissals by some unnamed person(s) who works for an organization that's opposed to breed bans, the ratios are very similar to those reported by dogsbite.org: Pit Bulls massively outnumbering attacks by other "dangerous breeds", and completely overwhelming the poor Doberman, which I'm starting to believe is the breed that's really been unfairly slandered. (There were no Doberman-claimed attacks in 2010.)

(At this point I'd really like to insert a video of Norm MacDonald's "Whatever happened to Dobermans" bit, but I can't find it on YouTube at the moment.)


Down the rabbit hole.

I was going to play video games all day today, but as is so often the case, once I discover an internet subculture, I find myself getting sucked in. And the more I read, the more I think the Pit Bull defense subculture is a cult.

I mentioned Dobermans being slandered? Well, it appears Bloodhounds have it worse. In their desperation to say "It's not the dog", they're conflating English Bloodhounds with Cuban and Siberian Bloodhounds once used to hunt slaves. Those dogs had nothing to do with the droopy-jowled animals Americans know as Bloodhounds, and actually have a build very similar to the Pit Bull. Which is no surprise, because they were bred for the same purposes. And even in the past, were banned for being vicious.

But you won't hear this from the Pit Bull apologists, because that doesn't help their cause. These are not "dog lovers", they'll happily throw another breed under the bus in defense of their own preferences.

Y'know, humans breed dogs for character. We've even bred foxes for character, domesticating them in a few generations. As we did so, their physical makeup changed too, becoming more dog-like. Curly tails, rounded ears. Genetics is not a simple on-off switch, some genes are involved in more than one trait. It makes me wonder if some of the genes that are useful in fighting dogs - the powerful jaw and shark-like snout - don't also express themselves in mental aspects. Maybe even the dog equivalent of mental illnesses. It would not surprise me if any time you breed for certain physical characteristics, you end up selecting genes that also result in a certain amount of instability/rage/whatever.

Come to think of it, this is taken as a given when it comes to cats. Everybody knows Siamese are loud, torties are crazy, and polydactyls like to play in water. Universally true? No, but good enough to place a decent wager on. Of course, these traits aren't threatening to anyone, so there's nobody trying to imply that all breeds are just as likely to be talkers as Siamese.


The nanny dog.

I saw that meme going around facebook, went "Dawww, cute!" and kept scrolling. Turns out it's total bullshit. Dangerous bullshit.

The following photos look like the many vintage family photos on pit bull apologist websites purporting to show pit bulls as simply family pets.

There is provenance and a written record of these photos, however. They are from the family scrapbooks of Gary Wilkes, an acclaimed animal behaviorist, trainer and author with over 30 years experience studying and training dogs. His grandfather was a dogfighter and the dogs seen above with the family fought in the pit. One of them attacked a man and caused the man to lose his leg. After that, the family got rid of the dogs. He wrote an insightful and instructive article about about pit bulls and why regulation is necessary.

That article is well worth reading. You'll have to click the link and use the 'index' or 'skip to page' buttons to jump to page 26.

If you think I've laid out a biased case against Pit Bulls, you're right. Besides being the descendent of a pit fighter, I spent eight years working in shelters and animal control agencies. For three years of that time I routinely caught, impounded and attempted to control Pit Bulls as afield officer. I once investigated an attack on a three-year-old by a family's pit bull. The child's face was ripped from the corner of her mouth to her eye. The provocation was that the child walked to close to the dog's chew bone.

For the past 25 years I have trained and rehabilitated Pit Bulls as a regular part of my business. I have found them to be bright, affectionate, and loving. I've also seen what they can do to other dogs, livestock and people. It's not pretty. It isn't supposed to be. They were bred to do one thing — attack with no reservations. Like a hand grenade, they are inert until you pull the pin. Once the pin is pulled, there is nothing you can do to stop the explosion.

To quote Dale Dunning, former executive director of the Arizona Humane Society, they differ from grenades in one very important aspect — the dog controls the pin. That fact neutralizes all the acknowledged true accounts of their sweet, loving, affectionate nature. It means that your child will probably be immune to your Pit Bull's aggression, just like my father, his brothers and sisters and their cousin Roscoe. The problem starts when a neighbor kid socks Roscoe in the nose. What will your Pit Bull do if he thinks he's protecting "his" child? What happens when someone trips over your dog's metaphoric chain?

No other breed in America is currently bred for fighting, in such great numbers as the American Pit Bull Terrier. No other breed has instinctive behaviors that are so consistently catastrophic when they occur, regardless of how rarely they happen. The reality is that every English Pointer has the ability to point a bird. Every Cattle Dog has the ability to bite the heel of a cow and every Beagle has the ability to make an obnoxious bugling noise when it scents a rabbit or sees a cat walking on the back fence. Realistically, if your English Pointer suddenly and unpredictably points at a bird in the park, nobody cares. If my Heeler nips your ankle, I'm going to take care of your injuries and probably be fined for the incident. If your Beagle bugles too much, you'll get a ticket for a noise violation. If your Pit Bull does what it's bred to do...well, you fill in the blank.

He also addresses the "It's in the training" issue, victim-blaming, how the UKC covers up the fighting pedigree of Pits, and how breeders themselves (like his grandfather) believe it's "all in the blood".

I feel like today's been pretty well spent. Someday I'd like to have a dog or two, and as Wilkes points out, due to cockfighters switching to dogs in Arizona (let's not mince words: Mexicans), Pits make up over a quarter of the dogs at Arizona shelters. I could easily see myself getting sucked into one of those adorable faces. And it would probably be ok. But there are plenty of other adorable faces out there waiting for homes, faces that don't come with a genetic grenade attached. When the time comes, it'll be a Greyhound or Dobie rescue for me.